NTSB: Pilots had change of plans before fatal Aspen flight

Early report on July 3 crash says men departed “using visual flight rules,” not the pre-approved plan

A preliminary report regarding the July 3 fatal plane crash 9 miles east of Aspen noted that before takeoff, the pilots abandoned a pre-approved flight path in favor of taking their own.

A change in departure plans was the precursor to the accident that claimed the lives of two residents of New York, according to a preliminary report of the incident issued Wednesday by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Ruben Cohen and David Zara, both pilots, had landed at Aspen-Pitkin County Airport at 1:53 p.m. that Saturday to put fuel in the Beechcraft Bonanza and have lunch. They had flown in from Napa, California, using Aspen as the go-between for their final destination of the day, Des Moines, Iowa, according to

Prior to taking off from Aspen-Pitkin County Airport at approximately 6:24 p.m., they received ground control’s clearance for an instrument flight rules plan, the NTSB report said. Yet they abandoned that departure plan because it required the single-engine aircraft climb to an elevation of 16,000 feet and as high as 17,000, the report said.

“The pilot responded that they could not accept 16,000 (feet), which was required for the departure procedure, and would instead depart using visual flight rules,” the report said.

Recorded communications between the pilots and airport control also reflected that.

“We can’t do 1-6,000 sir,” one of the pilots told ground control.

“I’ll cancel your flight plan now,” ground control responded. “I’ll advise you when you’re ready for taxi.”

“We’ll be ready for taxi in a minute, thank you,” one of the pilots replied.

The preliminary report provided factual information only; it did not draw conclusions about the cause of the crash or who was to blame. It also did not say who was piloting the aircraft. Results of the investigation into cause of the crash, also done by the NTSB, will be complete within 12 to 24 months.

“(The preliminary report) is saying that these pilots didn’t like the IFR (instrument flight rules) plan they were assigned for clearance,” said Robert Katz, a Dallas-based pilot and flight instructor who monitors aviation accidents. “So they canceled their IFR and departed under visual rules, and it’s all perfectly legal and in doing so, it was a fatal decision made on the ground before they even departed.”

For an aircraft like a Bonanza flying in the Rocky Mountains, the surest and safest way to leave Aspen is by flying northwest, Katz said. Northwest is in the direction of the lower-elevated Glenwood Springs.

“A place like Aspen is surrounded on three sides and there is only one way out,” he said, “and that was what they were assigned but declined to accept.”

The pilots weren’t sure what their departure plan was at the time.

“Are you going downvalley before you make your eastbound turn or are you going northeast through the ridge?” air-traffic control asked the pilots.

“We’re going to make our decision once we take off, actually,” one of the pilots said. “Once we see what’s going on.”

After take off, the aircraft circled around Aspen while gaining altitude.

“When passing through 10,100 (feet), the pilots informed the tower that they would depart to the east, stating ‘we’re above it,'” the NTSB’s preliminary report said. “When the flight was 5 miles east of the airport, the tower controller informed them that they were leaving ASE airspace and approved a frequency change. The pilot asked the tower controller to recommend a frequency, however the tower controller did not respond. The flight continued to the east and southeast.”

Less than 14 minutes into the flight, at 6:38 p.m., the plane crashed near Midway Pass, which is in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness.

The distance from Aspen airport to Midway Pass (red dot), where searchers found the plane wreckage and two New York men who died July 3 in the crash east of Aspen.
Google Maps

“Radar data showed the airplane as it approached a semi-circular mountain ridgeline with tops over 13,000 ft,” the report said. “Data indicated that the airplane was at 11,500 (feet) as it approached the ridgeline and then the airplane subsequently dropped off radar.”

The Bonanza aircraft simply was not up to the task, according to Katz.

“It’s not up to the controllers to stop the pilots,” he said. “They turn to the southeast, … and they know they’re in a box canyon, so they start to circle and climb over the town of Aspen. The airplane is at its performance limit, and it cannot climb as high as they want it to climb. They get it up to 10,000 feet and they stop circling and attempt to proceed on course, thinking they can thread the needle through the mountains, and they’re kidding themselves. They can’t do this. It doesn’t work.”

Authorities located the aircraft’s wreckage July 4 near a meadow in a wooded area at an elevation of about 11,000 feet, the report said.

“A post impact fire ensued,” the report said.

Cohen received his private pilot certificate Feb. 2, 2020. Zara was a more experienced pilot and in May earned his airline transport pilot certificate, the highest level of pilot certification, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

The Bonanza was built in 2007 and was acquired in May by LEC Aviation, a limited liability company that Cohen created in April, according to the state of New York.

The aircraft still will need to be cleared from the site for a “detailed examination,” according to the report.

Typically the insurance carrier for the downed aircraft is responsible for collecting the wreckage, though Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo said he did not know if there is much left to remove.


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